Revamped Citizen Review Board helps residents address misconduct with police department
Did you know the police department has a “customer satisfaction survey?”
This questionnaire takes an unconventional approach by asking those who have been arrested to assess their experience with police officers. Police Chief Frank Fowler says it provides insight on how his department can become better.
“Any findings are helpful,” he believes.
An outside contractor that Fowler wished not to name has administered the survey since 2011 with significant input from the police chief on the design. Fowler says he receives periodic updates and the results have been helpful in designing training.
The survey was introduced at a time when Syracuse police were fighting to earn back the public’s confidence after allegations of police misconduct resulted in federal court verdicts totaling $1.1 million against the department and also while the city’s Citizen Review Board was in limbo, according to a Sept. 13, 2011 Post-Standard article. A panel to relaunch the CRB was established in a further effort to boost accountability.
Joseph Lipari, 35, took over as administrator of the CRB in May of 2012, and believes he’s made great strides in achieving the CRB’s original mission. He said in a recent interview that he did not know about the department’s survey, but said he sees it as a fantastic idea.
“If the questionnaire is used to get a good feel of outside perceptions,” he said, “it couldn’t be anything but helpful. The more perspectives, the better.”
Lipari is fervent that the CRB do just that, hear various perspectives. The main mission of the CRB is to review citizens’ complaints about the Syracuse Police Department.
The revamped CRB was established under Local Law 1 of 2012 and drafted by a legislative advisory committee appointed by Councilor Pamela Hunter. Trust in the CRB appears to be rapidly building under Lipari and the newly reconstituted board. Before Lipari took the helm, the watchdog group suffered with a track record of 17 years of ineffectiveness.
In Lipari’s first year the reconstituted CRB held 15 hearings and closed 52 cases. In 2013, there were 35 hearings and a total of 110 cases closed.
“Twenty to 30 percent of complaints end up going through to a hearing,” Lipari said.
Once a hearing is called, the complainant and witnesses appear before Lipari and three members of the 11-member board. The panel then deliberates in private whether to sustain the complaint or exonerate the police.
The citizen receives a letter from the board, which develops a disciplinary recommendation for the chief when the ruling favors the complainant. The CRB is a creation of the Common Council, but Lipari says “we report to the public. Neither the mayor nor the council can intervene in our internal process, so we are independent in that sense.” CRB funds come out of the general city fund, making it a taxpayer supported entity like all other city departments. Lipari earns a salary of $57,000.
The power in the CRB’s recommendations, Lipari believes, comes from making them public and allowing residents, politicians and police officers to see them.
Numbers are key, says activist and United as One Coalition (UAO) member Bruce Peak.
In response to instances of brutality at the justice center, a diverse group of community organizations united in August 2010 to form the UAO. These groups, ranging from supporters of disability, race and civil rights, banded together to bring greater awareness through sheer numbers. UAO additionally works to organize demonstrations, public forums and speak-outs. The most recent was a speak-out against police brutality Aug. 21, 2013, at the Southwest Community Center.
“This was a closed event to media and police in an effort to make residents feel free to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation,” Peak said.
But the event had low turnout.
“The more people that speak up,” he said, “the greater the chance we’ll be heard.”
Voicing concerns is the first step, he says, adding, “No one should say it was a cop and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
He acknowledged the CRB can only make recommendations to Fowler.
“At the end of the day, they turn in their report and nothing comes of it,” he said. “We need a Citizen Review Board that makes demands, rather than just suggestions.”
Lipari notes that his job is to “keep pressure on decision-makers to adopt these recommendations,” which he says requires public support to elevate pressure.
“Silence,” Peak continued, “is the worst enemy.”
Khalid Bey, Common Councilor from the Fourth District, said he’s guided two people to file complaints.
“Citizens have to feel like they have an outlet,” he said, adding that the CRB makes people feel heard. “One [man] I directed to the CRB, later instead of expressing further frustration in the system, expressed gratitude.”
“We give a much more personal approach,” he said. “The complainant gets assurance that their concerns are valid and that we are not going to allow them to languish.”
“Having a CRB is redundant. What we have in place is sufficient,” he said in reference to the department’s Office of Professional Standards (OPS). He continued, “Then if issues rise to a higher level, they can go to the DA and then grand jury.”
The CRB and OPS do not work together to investigate, but do share reports and evidence. After completing their investigations, each reaches an independent finding.
Barrie Gewanter, Central New York Chapter director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, served as a scribe in drafting the reconstituted CRB ordinance. She’s also a member of UAO. She says cases evaluated by the reconstituted CRB have brought out things that would not have been heard if such work was left solely to the police department.
“The truth can’t only be that which is put out by the police officers and the department’s commanders,” she said. “The CRB is an impetus to accountability.”
Civil Rights Law 50-a requires the board to maintain the confidentiality of any and all personnel records received, and because of this, the CRB cannot release any disciplinary findings, so the public is not informed on what actions may have been taken by the police chief.
Additionally, the CRB is informed of the chief’s disciplinary decisions in each case, but neither the CRB nor Fowler can reveal to the public (including the individual complainant) the specific discipline that an officer receives (or even if the discipline was administered at all).
“What we can do is report to the public how often the chief imposes discipline when the CRB recommends it,” Lipari said. “That’s what we call our ‘rate of agreement’ or ‘disciplinary action rate.’ It is reported in the form of a percentage.”
This allows the public some insight into how often the chief and the CRB agree on discipline, but not the specific discipline in each case.
“For example, during the second quarter of 2013, we had a disciplinary action rate of 43% (up from about 20% in the previous quarters),” Lipari said. “Meaning the chief imposed discipline in 43% of the cases where the CRB sustained some kind of misconduct.”
Withholding of details concerns Mikiel Anderson, 30, city resident and regular CRB meeting attendee. He has attended every CRB meeting since the beginning of 2012 in an effort to be a watchdog of the watchdog.
“I want to make sure not only that the CRB is doing its job but also that the issue of police misconduct is being regularly evaluated,” he said.
He would like to see more specifics shared with residents in regards to complaints and the process taken without giving away specific details, which the current law does not allow to be released. What is released in the annual report are recommendations on police policy and procedure based on what complaints were received that year. These recommendations are sent on to the Mayor’s office, the Common Council and the Chief of Police “in an effort to spur constructive dialogue about how to address particular concerns of the CRB,” as stated in the group’s 2012 annual report.
“As we hear various complaints,” Lipari said, “concerns may be heard repeatedly or as we pursue our investigation, we may notice a policy or procedure was not followed correctly or could be rewritten to better address current situations. So from what emerges, we make as recommendations because we feel they warrant the Syracuse Police Department’s attention.”
Anderson became interested in keeping an eye on the CRB after media coverage of the firing of the former CRB administrator Felicia Davis. Davis, the only administrator for 17 years since the creation of the CRB, was fired by Mayor Stephanie Minor Feb. 4, 2011 for ineffective oversight and numerous deficiencies in the CRB’s operation.
“City residents should attend CRB meetings because they would have an opportunity to let their thoughts be known on the performance of the CRB, be able to ask questions and raise concerns on both the actions of the CRB and the Syracuse Police Department,” he said.
Written into the new ordinance is a mandate that the CRB release quarterly reports listing statistics on complaints and the board’s recommendations. Once a year, the CRB is tasked with combing through for patterns, in an effort to make recommendations to the department. It shares those with the police chief, politicians and the public. These are released in an annual report.
Lipari explained that in the annual report, “findings” are the hearing panels’ decisions on whether to sustain the allegation or not. “Recommendations” can refer to both the CRB’s specific disciplinary recommendations in an individual case or the policy and training recommendations.
In its 2012 annual report, the CRB made three recommendations to the police chief: Following a forced entry, a property must be properly secured; in instances when cash is recovered, a property receipt must be provided; and that a non retaliation/intimidation clause should be added to the current SPD policy for accepting complaints against police officers.
Although 2013’s annual report has yet to be released, Lipari said one recommendation is likely going to be on ensuring proper protocols are followed during high-risk traffic stops in regards to use of force.
“Historically the relationship between the community and police has been tense,” said CRB board member Timothy ‘Noble’ Jennings-Bey. “I see the CRB as a vehicle to restructure that relationship.”
Jennings-Bey, appointed to the CRB by the mayor in 2012, serves on the board’s community outreach committee and is the director of the Trauma Response Team at the United Way of Central New York. He’s a member of the South Side community.
Together Lipari and Jennings-Bey presented to youth at the Aug. 21 speak-out, discussing how to properly engage police officers.
Gewanter trains community leaders on a similar presentation called “What to Know When Interacting with the Police.” She notes that as a middle-class white woman, there are many groups who will not relate to her delivery. This is why she is eager to train community leaders to share the presentation’s valuable message with their respective communities.
“It is much more effective as a peer-to-peer presentation,” she said. “Noble can reach people and youth in particular that I cannot effectively.”
She refers to this as a “train the trainer approach,” and says if there are community leaders interested in adopting her presentation, she will gladly train and partner with them.
“This means black leaders giving the presentation and sharing their own or similar experiences with the black community, Latinos to other Latinos, Vietnamese to other Vietnamese, and so on,” she said, explaining people have a greater takeaway if they hear from someone with a similar background and life experience.
Lipari and Jennings-Bey agree. Lipari sees youth much more engaged when they hear from Jennings-Bey and plans to develop a guided presentation he can present to youth at the Southwest Community Center and throughout the city with Jennings-Bey’s help.
“Joey is not scared,” Jennings-Bey said about Lipari’s outreach plans. “He will go anywhere, into any neighborhood without fear because he believes so strongly in what he is doing.”
Jennings-Bey says their presentation serves as a guide on how youth should engage with officers. “We discuss a code of conduct,” Jennings-Bey said. “We talk about how initial interactions with police can elevate a situation or allow it to run smoothly.”
One example he shared was cultural.
“We [African-Americans] speak with our hands,” he said as he demonstrated by waving and cutting his hands through the air. “If we come in contact with a police officer and respond with ‘Hey man, I wasn’t doin’ nothin’ …,’ with our arms waving, then this can be seen and taken as a potential threat.
“We want youth to walk away from an interaction with an officer feeling whole,” Jennings-Bey added.
PLANS IN THE MAKING
The CRB can work, Lipari says, “but we have to have the process work on all cylinders.”
Improvement, in his view, depends on advancing the CRB’s relationship with the police department. For this, the CRB ordinance requires formation of a police liaison committee, which would pair three officers with a three-member committee already in place by the CRB. Lipari views this committee as another way to provide valuable insight.
“I think anything that can give the board any perspective on officers’ day-to-day interactions is great,” Lipari said. “We need to understand every perspective.”
The ordinance charges Police Chief Fowler with coordinating this liaison committee, but finding volunteers, Fowler said, can be a challenge. Currently, the committee has yet to be formed.
The CRB will also hold future CRB meetings — held monthly, May through October — in various city neighborhoods, making it easier for residents to attend.
“Come out and voice your concerns,” Lipari said. “Make us your CRB.”
Lipari hopes to even offer his own survey.
“Down the road I hope to do a survey for complainants to fill out who have been through the process,” he said. “They can give us a grade and feedback.”
— To file a complaint with the CRB, click here